I May Not Have All the Answers, But I Have Some Good QuestionsPosted: April 6, 2011
Maybe it’s my line of work, but people are always expecting me to have the answers. (If they got a Role-Based Assessment report from my company, it will contain a lot of answers. But from me? – sorry, I didn’t replace my crystal ball when it broke, and since we started using Keurig coffee pods at the office, there aren’t enough tea leaves around here for a decent reading.)
So instead of feeling useless, answer-wise, I thought I’d give you a look at some of my favorite questions.
Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that you may safely ask these questions of yourself. However, asking them of other people, without an explicit request for help, can be dangerous to your health. (And that warning goes double if you happen to be married to the respondent!)
“What does that mean?”
It’s always a good idea to start by defining your terms and concepts. Language is rich, but if you don’t establish a common frame of reference, you will get noise and distortion in the communication channels. When that happens, it is easy to end up thinking that you understand, even when you are missing the point, totally. This guarantees that many, if not most, of the answers anyone comes up with during the course of the discussion will not be helpful ones.
“How do you know?”
We have browsers. We have Google. We have expert communities. With all the stuff that the giant collective ‘they’ opines about on practically any topic, it’s amazing how much trouble we still get ourselves into. That’s because we are sometimes entirely too dependent on what ‘they’ know. (If you don’t believe me, visit and snoop around Snopes.com.) A lot of the stuff we ‘know’ because ‘they’ said it, just isn’t so. Sometimes asking the ‘How’ question snaps us back into reality.
People often want advice on how to change things that they have no power to change – or even to connect with. I don’t want to offend any change management professionals here. Changing big organizational processes is a tough challenge. But sometimes change doesn’t warrant all the hue and cry that goes up when people first hear about it. So when someone is complaining, and there’s really not much substance to it, you can hit them with ‘So what?’ It’s especially effective when used sparingly – and sincerely. You’ll sound practical – and sympathetic – at the same time, and you won’t actually have to get too deeply involved with sound and fury that signifies nothing.
I love this question the most because kids ask it all the time. And it has the simplest answer (ask any tired parent): “Because.” The key with this question, for adults as much as for any kid, is that sometimes you need to keep asking it until you get an answer that satisfies you. And on the flip side – you can just keep giving this answer until the person expecting a different, better one, goes off to search elsewhere.
Lastly, a favorite question, and of a much higher order: Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?”
Only one good answer. ‘Be.’
Be-cause when you are be-ing, good questions (and good answers) sorta come naturally.